This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.
Last night, we continued our “You Asked For It” Q&A series with another question about the trustworthiness of the Christian message. After examining the truthfulness of the Bible last week, we now looked at the question “Can we trust that the resurrection is true?” Without a doubt, there is no more foundational belief for Christians than the belief that Christ has been bodily raised from the dead. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 15, which we read as our call to worship to open last night’s Sola5 study. If Christ has not been raised, then we have no hope that our sins are forgiven or that we will live again also when this life is over. Plainly put, if Jesus is still dead, then we are a sorry bunch of fools. However, many have alleged that the four gospel accounts contain inconsistencies and cannot be trusted to be anything more than inspirational fiction. Do we see hopelessly contradictory accounts, or four individuals each giving their own take on the same events, highlighting different details that stuck out in their own minds? We tackled some of the biggest “problems” head on and examined why we should believe that Jesus of Nazareth returned to life after being dead and buried.
After reading the four accounts of the resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-10), we looked at some of the most frequent criticisms of the text. First up, did the events described occur before or after sunrise? Mark indicates that that sun had risen while John says that it was still dark. The most obvious answer is that these two descriptions are not mutually exclusive. The sun does not flip on like a lightswitch, but anyone who is up for the sunrise (as, unfortunately, I often am) knows full well that the sun can be rising and it can also be quite dark outside, especially without the aid of electrical lights. That aside, the journey that the women take on foot from Jerusalem to the tomb would have likely taken half-an-hour at the very least – enough time for the lighting to change substantially, as reflected by Matthew’s description that it was toward dawn when the events took place. The next question – how many women and angels were at the tomb? The number of women named varies from 1 to 3, while the number of angels differs from one to two. However, the fact that certain women or angels were not mentioned doesn’t necessarily indicate that they weren’t there. For example, if you were to ask me what Heather and I did a week ago, I would tell you that we saw Brooks & Dunn and ZZ Top in concert. However, if you consulted the newspaper, you would find that we actually saw Brooks & Dunn, ZZ Top, and a guy named Rodney Atkins in concert. Was I lying when I left Atkins' name off my description? No, I was just leaving out a detail I didn’t find personally important to my telling of the story. We all do this all the time. The gospel writers aren’t seeking to give exhaustive details, but to tell the story as they remember it (or in the case of Mark and Luke, as it was told to them).
The last alleged contradiction we looked at was the one requiring the most thought – if Mary Magdalene had already seen the angels and the risen Jesus as described in Matthew 28, why does she seem worried and confused about the body being taken in John 20? The answer requires that we carefully examine what each writer is (and isn’t) saying. Matthew reports the women who went to the tomb, then simply refers to them as a group when they enter the tomb and see the angels and Jesus. However, John – who mentions only Mary Magdalene – points out that she fled the tomb immediately after seeing that the stone was gone, heading back to find Peter and John. This has a great effect on how we view the timeline of events. Matthew Perman and Justin Taylor have put together a detailed description here, but I’ll summarize: while the women see the angels and then Jesus, Mary tells Peter and John and the three of them set out for the tomb. While the rest of the women are looking for the rest of the disciples back in Jerusalem, Peter, John and Mary arrive at the tomb, and after Peter and John leave Mary has her famous encounter with Christ where she mistakes him for the gardener.
A careful look shows that the so-called contradictions in the gospel accounts actually have quite plausible explanations. When one considers the validity of the resurrection, one should also consider the wide scholarly acceptance of the empty tomb (Rome and the Jewish leaders wanted badly to extinguish Christianity – if the tomb wasn’t empty all they had to do was produce the body - game over) and the fact that 10 of the 11 disciples died violent deaths for their unwavering testimony to Christ’s resurrection and the 11th, John, didn’t get off for a lack of effort (he was tortured repeatedly and eventually banished to a remote island). People don’t often die for that which they know to be a lie, especially so many without exception. However, at the end of the day, no one will ever be intellectually argued into the Kingdom of Christ. Why? Because lack of information isn’t our problem – sin is. Christ himself said that we could not have faith in him apart from the work of the Spirit of God. Faith can only result from God’s free gift, and all the mental evidence and theory in the world means nothing until the heart of stone is exchanged for the heart of flesh. Thus, while it is important that we think carefully and critically about the Scriptures, we must always remember that our trust is in Christ because of the change he’s made in us. We can’t miss the forest for the trees. As my good friend Josh Nelson put it last night, thought many people alledge inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, the four accounts undoubtedly agree on one pretty important point – Jesus did rise from the dead.
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